Are You Listening?

I’m sure you’ve all heard the story about the blind men and an elephant.  In this story, none of these men knew what an elephant was, because they had never seen one.  And so, one by one, each man was led into a room, asked to find the elephant, and was told to describe the animal they found.

The first blind man happened to grab hold of the elephant’s tail.  He said, “The elephant is like a rope.”  The second blind man caught hold of one of the elephant’s massive legs and said, “No, the elephant is like a tree.”  The third blind man bumped into the side of the elephant and said, “No, the elephant is like a wall.”

One by one, each man based his description of the elephant on the part of the elephant that he touched.  Since all they knew of the elephant was a tail or a leg or a side, they couldn’t begin to appreciate the actual size and shape of the elephant.  None of those men knew what an elephant really looked like.

And I think that illustrates what it’s like for us as we try to get an understanding of what Jesus is like.  Each one of us bases our view of Jesus on that part of Jesus to which we’ve been exposed.  We grab hold of one little characteristic and we think that we have an accurate picture of who Jesus is.  But, without the full picture, what we think Jesus is like could be very different from what he actually is like.

Throughout the first half of Mark’s gospel, there is this important question that keeps coming up — “Who is this Jesus?”   As people come in contact with Jesus, they form an opinion about him and they try to figure out exactly who he is. 

In the third chapter of Mark, there are four different groups of people who form their impressions about Jesus.  Each of these groups think they understand everything there is to know about Jesus, when in fact they’ve only got part of the picture.  And then, based on the limited knowledge they have, each group responds to Jesus in a different way.

I want to take a brief look at each of these groups who formed an opinion about Jesus.  But it’s important for you to see that this is not just an intellectual exercise.  Because ultimately, every single one of us in this room has to make up our own mind about who we think Jesus really is.

I.          Four Responses to Jesus

A.        The crowds

            Chapter 3, verse 7, “But Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed, from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon.  When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him.  And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him, for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him.” (Mark 3:7-10)

            We’ve already talked about how popular Jesus was in these early chapters of Mark.  But the part of Jesus that the crowds focused on more than anything else was his miracles.  The multitude “heard all that he was doing” (verse 8), and they flocked from the neighboring areas to be with him.  The crowd wanted to touch Jesus and be healed.  It’s interesting that there’s no mention here of Jesus’ teaching.  These people didn’t flock to Jesus to be taught; they simply wanted to be healed.  They were very impressed with Jesus, but it was because of his miraculous power, not because of his great teachings. 

And so, if you were to ask this group of people, “What is Jesus like?”, they would have said, “It’s obvious that he’s somebody who works miracles.”

B.        His family

            In verse 20, “Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat.  And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’” (Mark 3:20-21).

            Jesus’ family thought he had gone crazy.  And that may surprise you a bit.  But it really shouldn’t.  Suppose your brother suddenly claimed to be the Son of God and he tells you that he is going to save the world.  What would you think? 

            To Jesus’ family, Jesus was someone who left home and left the carpenter’s business in Nazareth.  It was probably a well-established business from which Jesus could have made a good living.  But, one day, Jesus quit his job and went out to be a preacher and wandered all over the countryside.  They must have thought nobody with any sense would ever give up a thriving business where money comes in every week to become a homeless man.

            When he did that, Jesus made it clear that the things that mean the most to most people meant nothing to him.  He wasn’t concerned about financial security.  He wasn’t concerned about his safety.  And, perhaps strangest of all, he didn’t care what people thought about him.

            All of those things that were important to normal people weren’t important at all to Jesus.  So, his family thought he was “out of his mind.”  They thought it was best to grab him and take him somewhere where he could come to his senses. 

You see, what his family saw when they looked at Jesus was his strangeness.  He wasn’t normal.  He didn’t do the sort of things that normal people do.  They wanted Jesus to be normal — a normal carpenter, not a religious extremist.  They wanted him to go back home and quit wandering all over the countryside.   Most of all, they wanted Jesus to stop talking about all this Messiah stuff.  All Jesus’ family wanted was for him just to be normal.

C.        The Scribes and Pharisees

Verse 22, “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebub,’ and ‘by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.’” (Mark 3:22)

In a sense, the scribes and the Pharisees agreed with the family of Jesus.  They thought Jesus was crazy.  More precisely, they thought he was demon-possessed. This was a charge that was repeatedly leveled against Jesus.

The Jewish leaders couldn’t deny that Jesus cast out demons, and that obviously took real miraculous power.  They could have seen this as evidence that Jesus came from God, but they considered themselves to be men of God, and Jesus didn’t agree with them.  He didn’t follow their traditions, and he ignored their rules.  So, it was obvious to them that Jesus couldn’t possibly be from God. 

So, they simply attributed the power of Jesus to demonic forces.  They accused him of being possessed by Beelzebub, the prince of demons. He didn’t come form God, he came from Satan, and he was possessed by a demon.

D.        The apostles

Let’s back up a few verses to verse 13:

“And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him.  And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.  He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Mark 3:13-19)

Jesus chose twelve men to become his special helpers and learners — apostles.  They’re going to spend a lot of time with Jesus and then they’ll be sent out to preach about the kingdom of God.  These twelve men saw the same thing all those other people saw.  At this point in time, they didn’t have any inside information.  But they saw something different in Jesus. 

As a result, they left their businesses and families – they left everything — to follow Jesus because they saw something in him more than his miracles, something more than his strangeness. They saw him as the Son of God.

So, the question I want to raise this morning is this — why was it that all of these people — the crowds of people, his family, the Pharisees and the apostles – why did all of them have such different views of Jesus?  After all, they all had access to the same information.  They all heard his teaching.  They all saw his miracles.  Why was it that some of them, like the apostles, were willing to give up everything to follow him while others, like the Pharisees, rejected him as being demon possessed?  

And even more relevant to us — why do people today respond to Jesus in so many different ways?

            As a young preacher, I remember wanting to find a way to share the good news of Jesus with non-Christians.  And I was convinced that if I could find just the right approach, just the right technique, everyone I taught would come to faith in Christ.  I suspect that I’m not the only person who’s ever felt that way.

            But the more I deal with people, the more I’ve come to believe that people’s response has less to do with the technique of presentation and more to do with the hearts of individuals.  Now, don’t get me wrong – I certainly think there are some good ways and some bad ways to share the gospel.  But, ultimately, a person’s response will have more to do with his or her heart.

            I mean, think about Christ.  There was certainly nothing wrong with the way Jesus presented his message.  He was the Son of God, giving a message from God himself.  People listened to him as he taught, they watched him as he healed people.  And yet the vast majority of people still dismissed Jesus as an imposter.  It wasn’t because he used the wrong technique.

And so, I think it’s interesting that Mark follows up his look at these four different responses to Jesus with a parable that explains why people respond to Jesus the way that they do – it’s the parable of the sower.   Mark chapter 4, beginning with verse 1.

            “Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:  ‘Listen!’” (Mark 4:1-3)

            Here in chapter 4, we begin a section of teaching called the parables.  Someone has described a parable as an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.  Or, to put it another way, a parable is a story that makes a point.  So, what is the point of this parable?  Simply this: how we listen to God really matters.

            That’s not anything new. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden with a command to listen. The Law of Moses required careful listening. In the Old Testament, the daily prayers of God’s people began with the words of Deuteronomy 6, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”  Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years because of their failure to listen to God.

            So, it should come as no surprise to us that Jesus opens his teaching in verse 3 with a command to listen.  He uses a strong word here.  It’s an imperative.  It’s a command.  Jesus isn’t saying, “You might want to think about listening to me.”  He’s says, “Listen!”  Our attention is mandatory. And our response to that command makes all the difference in the world.  Are we willing to pay attention to Jesus?

            You see, Jesus knew that not everybody gathered on that beach would really hear his message. He knew there were some people who had already made up their minds about who he was — or who he wasn’t.  They were listening to them but they weren’t really listening, they were hearing what he had to say but they weren’t really hearing. The words of Jesus went in one ear and out the other.  

            For others, they listened to Jesus and it looked like it was going to make a difference in their lives, but it didn’t last. For yet others, the message of Jesus changed their lives forever. So, what made the difference?  That’s what this parable is all about.

            In verse 3, Jesus said, “Behold, a sower went out to sow.” What does he sow?  Jesus says in verse 14, the sower sows the Word of God.   That means that the sower is anyone who shares God’s Word.  At that time, Jesus was the sower, but today the sower is you and me, the preacher in the pulpit, the missionary in a third-world country, an employee who talks with a co-worker at lunch about the Bible, a parent who tells their child a bedtime Bible story. The sower is anyone who shares God’s word.

            How does the sower sow the seed?  In verse 4, “And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 

            “Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:4-8)

            Jesus taught this parable as he sowing the seed of the word on all different kinds of soil.  The seed gets spread far and wide on all kinds of ground. Some of it falls on the hard path; some of it falls into good soil.  But the field gets covered with seed.  

            In the ancient world, a farmer would sow, and then he would plow.  And some of the seed went to unproductive places. That’s just how it was.  Some seed fell on the path.  Some fell among rocks and thorns.  A farmer couldn’t make his field perfect before spreading the seed.  Sometimes what seemed to be good soil turned out to be useless.  But the farmer would spread his seed throughout his field, doing what he could to prepare for an abundant harvest.  And then he waited to see what the seed would yield.

            It seems easy enough to understand what Jesus was trying to say, but not everyone understood.  In fact, for some people, the parables only made things more confusing.

            In verse 10, “And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.  And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” (Mark 4:10-12)

            We like to think that Jesus spoke in parables to make his message easier to understand.  But Jesus said that he spoke in parables to keep some people from understandingthe truth about God’s kingdom.  It’s like Paul said in I Corinthians 2, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).  Only those who have a spiritual mindset are able to understand what Jesus was trying to say.

            But why would Jesus say things in a way that would hide the truth from people who really needed it?  To answer that question, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6.  Isaiah 6 is that great passage where Isaiah is caught up in a vision, and God forgives his sin and sends him out to preach to the hard-hearted people of Israel.

            Isaiah’s mission as a prophet was to tell the people around him that they aren’t going to listen to God because they haven’t been listening to him.  And since they won’t listen to God, their window of opportunity to be a part of God’s kingdom was closing. It’s going to get harder for them to understand what God is saying. God will still speak about what’s to come. He’ll still prophecy about Jesus.  But they won’t understand it because they don’t want to.

            And now Jesus is in the same situation. Some of the people who heard him won’t understand what he’s talking about.  Why?  Because they’ve already mind up their minds about Jesus.  They’ve already rejected him.  We’ve seen it throughout Mark’s gospel.  Everywhere Jesus goes, he runs into opposition. And if they’re going to question everything he says, he’s not going to let them mess things up for those who truly want to learn. And so he speaks in a way that those who are truly spiritually-minded can understand.

            Think of the parables as sort of a filter. Some people who followed Jesus were really interested in Jesus, others were pretending to be interested, and still others weren’t interested at all. And the parables sort them out.  So, how do you know what kind of person you are?  Well, the answer lies in the different kinds of soil.

1.         Hard soil — Hearts with no interest

            “And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.” (Mark 4:15)

            The hard soil corresponds to hard hearts, like the Pharisees, people who refused to pay attention to the words of Jesus.  They showed absolutely no interest in the gospel message, and so the gospel never had a chance to germinate because it never penetrated their hearts.

When I was in Boone and I was driving a school bus, there was a fellow who drove another bus – an onery old man who made it clear that he had absolutely no interest in Christianity.  We had a special day coming up at church and had some flyers printed up, so I carried them with me one morning and passed them out to all the bus drivers.  Richard took the flyer I gave him, pulled out his cigarette lighter, lit it, and burned the flyer to a crisp.  He had what I would describe as a hard heart, and there are people all around us who are just like that.  They have absolutely no interest in learning about Jesus.

2.         Stony soil – Hearts with shallow commitment

            “And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy.  And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” (Mark 4:16-17) 

            This term “rocky ground” doesn’t mean the soil had a bunch of rocks in it.  It means there was a layer of rock just a few inches below the surface.  Any seed in that kind of soil would spring up quickly because the ground would heat up quickly, but the plants wouldn’t be able to get their roots down deep and so they wouldn’t last long in the hot summer sun.

            And there are some people are like that.  They obey the gospel with enthusiasm.  I want to be a Christian, I want to follow Jesus.  But there’s not a lot of thought or commitment in­volved.  It’s just a quick emotional excitement that doesn’t count the cost of following Jesus or understand the significance of what it truly means to be a follower of Christ.  And so, they may be really excited when they get baptized.   But after a few Sundays, you don’t see them nearly as much.  And before long, you don’t see them at all.  They haven’t developed any roots to their faith.

3.         Thorny soil – Hearts with distractions

            “And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” (Mark 4:18-19)

            This is the person who begins to follow Christ, but he’s so busy with other things in his life that Christ gets crowded out.  One of the characteristics of our modern life is that everything is so fast-paced and crowded.  And the thorns grow up before we realize it.

            The thorns are basically anything that crowds Jesus out of our lives.  Jesus mentions several things that tend to be a problem — the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desire for things.  The truth is, money is one of the major thorns that compet­es with the gospel in our lives.  It’s sad to see Christians who have so much ability and so much talent who are more concerned with making money than they are with serving God.

            And, as a result, our commitment to Jesus Christ gets choked out by our desire for more “stuff”.  More money, more cars, more toys, more clothes.  A bigger house, a boat, a beach house in Florida and a cabin in Gatlinburg.  And it doesn’t come as a big surprise that there’s not much room left for spiritual things in a life like that

            All of us are in danger of being choked.  We get so busy that we don’t have time for prayer, Bible study, quiet time with God. 

4.         Good soil – Receptive hearts

“But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:20)

            Not all of the soil is bad.  Some of it’s good.  This is the person who, like the apostles, receives the word, listens to it and takes it in.  He tries to understand what Jesus is saying. 

The good soil listens, understands and obeys.  He hangs in there when things get tough.  Money and the things money can buy don’t distract him.  And he produces a good crop.  This is that person whose life is truly different because of the gospel, someone who’s not just going through a phase or having an emotional experience or trying to fit Jesus into their busy life.  It’s a life where Jesus comes first.

            So how are you going to respond to Jesus?  That all depends on what kind of soil you are.  Is it possible your heart has grown hard like the beaten path so that the word goes in one ear and out the other?  I doubt that, or you probably wouldn’t be here this morning. 

            But maybe you find that your faith in Christ isn’t strong enough to keep you faithful through the rough times of life.  You’ve been through some tough times, and you’re starting to struggle a bit in your faith.  You need a deeper faith, a deeper commitment.

            Or maybe you’ve become aware of just how many things there are that are trying to crowd Christ out of your life.  You’re not as involved in the work of the Lord as you ought to because there are so many other things that demand your time and attention.  Perhaps you realize this morning that it’s time to get your priorities straight and put first things first.

            Are you listening?


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